ESRC review of the PhD in the social sciences

In October 2021, we published the independent ‘review of the PhD in the social sciences’ report. The focus of the review was on the capabilities needed by social science graduates to ensure their contribution to research and their global competitiveness, and the optimum ways to develop them.

ESRC commissioned CFE Research, in partnership with the University of York, in February 2020 to undertake the review, and they undertook extensive research and engagement with the community.

The report provided ESRC with a comprehensive evidence base which informed both its vision and strategy for postgraduate training and for recommissioning our Doctoral Training Partnerships (DTPs) in 2022 to 2023.

ESRC’s response

In December 2021, we published a response to the review detailing how we planned to address the issues identified and recommendations made by the review, setting out our ambitious vision for postgraduate training:

To develop globally competitive social science researchers who are able to operate in interdisciplinary, collaborative, and challenge-led environments across a range of sectors, and are drawn from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Key changes

Key changes to postgraduate training summarised within the response include the following.

Research skills

Embedding digital methods and strengthening quantitative training while not losing sight of the importance of qualitative training and ensuring all students have a strong foundation in research design. Supporting the DTPs to innovate in the content and delivery of core training and strengthen the advanced training offer to students.

Employability skills

Introducing ‘research in practice’ as a core component of the doctoral experience for all ESRC-funded students, including the opportunity for a three month placement in academia, policy, business or third sector organisations.

Duration, funding and form of PhD

Extending funding from three to 3.5 years as standard to ensure students can develop their wider research and employability skills. Targeting our master’s funding at students who do not already have a social science masters and providing funding to support additional training at the PhD stage for students whose prior training meets some but not all our core training requirements.

Equality, diversity and inclusion

Requiring all DTPs to provide an equality, diversion and inclusion (EDI) strategy as an assessed part of their bid for funding, setting out how they will widen participation and provide an inclusive environment for all. As part of a holistic strategy, DTPs will be required to set out how they will make entry requirements more inclusive and be encouraged to consider ring-fenced funding for under-represented groups.

Supporting evidence

Engagement with our community has contributed to a number of additional strands of evidence which inform our strategy for postgraduate training. Some of this engagement and activity is ongoing and includes:

The steering group

An independent steering group provided guidance to the ESRC office throughout the review. The steering group was chaired by Professor Kathy Rastle, Royal Holloway University, and comprised members from across the sector including major employers and students. Full membership details can be found in appendix one of the report.

Publication of student data

Evidence collected as part of the review will be published in the ESRC-funded UK Data Service. ESRC studentship data will be published later this year as part of a wider analysis of the demographic characteristics of people we fund.


Dr Lucy Thorne, Head of Leadership and Skills, ESRC


Last updated: 19 February 2024

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